Defending Your Adopted Child and Setting Healthy Boundaries with Extended Family

Show of hands: who had to deal with at least one–if not more–difficult family member(s) over the holiday break? *raises hand* Okay, now who of you had to deal with a difficult family member specifically because you were enforcing a boundary about your adopted kiddo? *raises both hands* 

The good news is you’re not alone. The bad news is, it is a fairly common issue in families. Even in non-adoptive families, there are struggles about boundaries, especially around the holidays. 

When it comes to our adopted kids, there is an extra layer of frustration for extended family members. Some older generations may have feelings about behavior standards or adoption in general that are, sadly, just wrong. Getting them to admit that is a waste of air. Unfortunately, sometimes those people are the ones that are the most difficult to avoid during family get-togethers. 

For our family specifically, we have to deal with things like social anxiety, sensory processing disorder, ADHD, PTSD, and ODD. With that alphabet soup comes a great deal of consideration and pre-planning for events. I mean, we could just wing it, but the consequence of that is usually a tantrum that rattles the roof, so it’s not really worth it.  Unfortunately for our kids, people who say they are understanding usually aren’t. Because of that, we have learned that sometimes we just have to say no to certain things and deal with the emotional backlash from the other adults. It is painful, but I’d rather keep my kids safe and have me be upset than have everyone upset over something my kid can’t control. 

Over the years, we have had arguments about appropriate toys, how late is too late for bedtime, going to a massive family gathering in a location unfamiliar to our kids, not going to a party because I was too sick to be able to monitor the kids, and on and on.  Thankfully, we’ve learned something amazing. Our family is who we decide it is. Even if my kids can’t spend time with their cousins because of family drama, we have friends who are as close or closer than the family who more than bridge the gap.  My kids have never had to wonder if they are loved by the people we choose to surround them with. When they are older, they might ask difficult questions, but by then, I hope they’re old enough to understand the answers. 

So how do you do it? How do you set healthy boundaries and defend your adopted child? For me, doing that, in general, wasn’t hard. But doing it with people who were supposed to care the most but acted like they didn’t was really difficult.  What has worked the best for us is writing down our expectations and giving the people in question a chance to respond. This happens over text or email mostly. It is easier for me to parse my thoughts when I’m not in the heat of the moment. For us, that looks like saying, “We won’t be able to come to a big family gathering. I understand that makes you sad, but it will make you sadder if our kid has a meltdown and throws something at your face.” (I mean, yes, my kid shouldn’t throw things, and no, I’m not making excuses. But from personal experience, that is a real thing that can happen). 

Yes, there is always some backlash, but you will never regret the decision that is ultimately safest for your whole family. 

What do you do if there is someone who is just nasty about adoption in general? Unfortunately, talking doesn’t tend to fix these situations because sometimes people are just not great. Still, I make sure I defend my kid where they can hear it so they at least know Mom is in their corner. 

The easiest way to keep boundaries is to just say no. Opt out of participation if it isn’t going to be good for your kids. Sometimes saying no is a full sentence, and the person asking the question doesn’t deserve more justification than that. That goes counter to what most of us were raised to believe, especially if you’re a people pleaser by nature. However, I’ve learned the hard way that, sometimes, there’s just no pleasing some people. 

The biggest thing for us has been building a network of support for our family, people who love our kids nearly as much as we do, and will love them even if they’re struggling. These are often other adoptive families, but some are just great friends who chose us. I don’t know why, but I’m glad they did.  

Here are some guidelines for establishing healthy boundaries:

  • Know your limits and the limits of your kids
  • Let your no mean no. Don’t waiver, because if you do once, they’ll think they can do it again and again
  • Write out your reasons and try to explain them in the best way they will receive it
  • Involve a doctor or therapist if you need to
  • Decide for yourself what is and is not acceptable; make that clear to family members beforehand
  • If they break your rules, leave. You don’t need to offer an explanation if they aren’t willing to be safe people for your kids. 

I know it sounds hard. That’s because it is, unfortunately. But giving your kids safety and security is a fair trade-off for whatever you might lose otherwise, at least in my experience. 

Christina Gochnauer is a foster and adoptive mom of 5. She has a bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Letourneau University. She currently resides in Texas with her husband of 16 years, her children ages 3, 3.5, 4.5, 11, and 12, and her three dogs. She is passionate about using her voice to speak out for children from “hard places” in her church and community.